Without Autonomy and Competence, Count on Bullying to Continue

David Streight (October, 2018)

I read an article the other day about interventions to diminish bullying. Curiously the authors, one of whom I know personally and both of whom I’ve long respected, struck me more by what they failed to address than by what they did address. Their omission relates very much to the guiding principles of our work at Heart of Character.
The article covered well-disseminated recommendations for schools: set strict rules about bullying, post them prominently, make reporting easy, keep data, offer lots of support for victims, convince bystanders to become “upstanders”… What lacked was suggestions regarding what to do about, or for, the bully; well, with two exceptions: Make sure “the bully is given consequences…” and “Make sure staff let the bully know that they and other staff will be watching and consequences will increase in severity.” That was it. I am not yet aware of research on punishment of bullies suggesting that an increase in severity diminishes the problem, or even that any punishment at all results in less bullying. The latter might seem logical, but not all “punishment/consequences” are equal, and there is evidence that some might exacerbate, rather than decrease, the problem.
What strikes me about bullying research in general is how little it says—especially regarding adolescents—in answer to the question “What do we do about the bully?” The specific question ought to be “What can educators do that diminishes the chances that one young person will be interested in being cruel to another?” I’ve read a lot of research on bullying the past few months, and despite the fact that mountains have been written, I am stunned at the paucity of information on why bullying happens, and even more so at what educators should do with the bully “side” of the equation.
One thing that is pretty widely accepted is that a sense of personal competence (i.e., social and emotional skills including good problem-solving skills) makes a positive difference in younger children (up to about grade six). By the time students get to late middle school or high school, however, the skills that make up competence tend to be less effective because adolescent bullying looks like a different creature; the lack of social skills and social unpopularity that are factors in elementary school morph into something else. In fact, high school bullies (including cyberbullies) often have better social skills than their average peers.
One highly suspected factor in adolescent bullying is lack of autonomy. The reasoning goes this way: some kids, angry that their lives seem totally controlled by others, take out their anger on less powerful peers in (albeit psychologically unsatisfying) ways that help them feel a greater sense of control. This rationale and intervention for fostering autonomy were recently suggested in discussion of a large meta-analysis on bullying programs carried out by David Scott Yeager and colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin and from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. In other research, Guy Roth and colleagues in Israel have documented self-reports of adolescents who bullied less when their teachers were autonomy supportive than when teachers were controlling in their interactions with students.
The “problem” with traditional prevention programs is that they’re designed for younger students. A number of writers have noted the anti-bullying programs in high schools that  actually increased—rather than decreased— incidents of bullying. The best theory: many programs use dogmatic, just-don’t-do it, controlling-type tactics that researchers in Self-Determination Theory, Psychological Reactance Theory, and other fields know are either ineffective or worse. This phenomenon has also been found in anti-smoking campaigns that saw a subsequent increase in high schoolers lighting up, and in health advertising that promoted the use of condoms where results found students less interested in using a condom after the advertising than before. Yikes!
We already know that fostering an age-appropriate sense of autonomy is good for students’ mental health, for their social health, for the internalization of their motivation for both academics and character-related issues, and for a host of other things. These facts are true not just for high school students, but for much younger children, too. It does stand to reason that human beings feel less interest in being mean to someone else when their need for autonomy is being fulfilled—as opposed to when they feel hemmed in and manipulated by others. Adding interventions to foster student autonomy is a good idea, and doing so may diminish school climate problems along the way.